RKO 281 (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
RKO 281 is a fictional account of the making of Citizen Kane.
In fact, I can summarize my response to this movie in two quick bullet points:
You ought to enjoy watching it. I did. I've watched it three times now, enjoyed all three viewings, and find parts of it superior. I believe it earned all those Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Unfortunately, it just doesn't have much to do with the real story behind Citizen Kane. It bears as much resemblance to the real story as Citizen Kane itself bears to the life of William Randolph Hearst, which is to say that it borrows lots of facts and details from reality, but blends them with urban legends and fabrications until it is essentially a work of fiction.
Start with the basic premise, as shown in the opening scenes. Welles is in a period of writer's block. He needs to produce a movie in order to fulfill his highly-publicized contract with RKO. He is invited to a dinner party at Hearst's San Simeon estate. He and Hearst have a discourteous exchange of words at dinner. That night Welles wanders through the estate, drinking in the details of Hearst's opulent life. He has his motivation - anger at Hearst. He has his concept: a man who acquires wealth and power but never loves or is loved, ends up a virtual prisoner in his decaying castle, and eventually dies a lonely man.
Uh - no.
Bears no resemblance at all to reality. Welles never met Hearst before Citizen Kane. Welles never visited San Simeon. He had no special relationship with nor interest in Hearst at all.
Here's how Kane got written. Orson decided that he would base his first film project on a drama he had written in prep school called Marching Song, in which a reporter undertook a quest for a "prophet-warrior-zealot ... the most dramatic and incredible figure in American history," whose biography is told to the reporter in snippets from various different points of view, from which the reporter pieces together a vision of the man. Sound familiar? It is the exact structure of Citizen Kane. Orson then sent heavy-drinking screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz to a dry resort to write a first draft of the idea, attended to by John Houseman, whose job was to keep the alcoholic scribe off the bottle. The plan worked. Mank worked up a solid first draft of the film which would one day be widely considered the best of all time. The details of Hearst's life came not from Welles but from Mankiewicz who had been a frequent visitor at San Simeon in the early 30s, until his sharp tongue got him permanently disinvited. Mankiewicz combined his firsthand observations with casual Tinseltown gossip and molded it into Kane. Welles re-wrote Mank's draft and sent it back to the writer for further revisions, which Mank performed and returned. Welles continued to re-write.
One detail which has been lost with time is that the character of Susan Alexander, Kane's mistress, was nothing at all like the beloved Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress. Many of the details of the Kane/Alexander relationship did come from Welles, but those embellishments had nothing to do with William Randolph Hearst. Welles appropriated details from the lives of two magnates from the Chicago area, where Welles had grown up.
Of course, Charles Foster Kane is a publisher and many details of Kane's life are taken directly from Hearst's own, so the real publisher was suitably offended, and was powerful enough to strike back. He threatened to expose Hollywood secrets. His papers never took ads for Citizen Kane, and for a while they would not publish ads or reviews from any RKO pictures. Hearst also threatened to sue. Then he sicced his personal bulldog on Citizen Kane, in the form of snippy gossip columnist Luella Parsons. In the end, the studio decided to defy Hearst and release the film anyway, but the major theater chains wouldn't touch it. Hearst needn't have bothered with all the fussing. In the few theaters that did run it, the film was met with total public indifference. Hearst did continue to cause problems for Welles. Citizen Kane was booed by Luella and her minions every time it was mentioned at the 1942 Oscar ceremony in February. I think you all know that Welles struggled for the rest of his career, although that undoubtedly had less to do with Hearst's influence than with Orson's own irresponsibility and stubbornness.
I suppose the ultimate irony of Citizen Kane is that Kane really resembles Welles as much or more than he resembles Hearst. Many people have noted that Welles himself was an arrogant man who looked down on everyone and seemed incapable of loving or being loved. His movies tend to reflect that - great intelligence, a lot of razzle-dazzle, and plenty of wit and style, but an alarming lack of compassion and warmth. RKO 281 does make this point. Although it does not try to deny Hearst's monstrous sins, the film also shows Hearst to be the more thoughtful, more loving of the two men, genuinely capable of profundity, genuinely in love with Marion Davies, and she with him. And that was true in real life as well. On the other hand, did Orson Welles ever really care about anything but his legend or anyone but himself? Although RKO 281 fudges, embellishes or fabricates the facts, it does present the story in an epic way, as a battle between two near-equal giants who were very similar, almost reflecting the confrontation between God and Satan in Paradise Lost. At the end of the film, Hearst says, in another apocryphal scene, "I should have been a great man, but wasn't." Which character was that really about? Has any statement ever summed up Orson Welles better?
Bottom line, I really enjoy this movie. Unlike many other reviewers, I like Liev Schreiber as a young Welles. Roy Scheider, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith and John Malkovich are outstanding in the other four main roles. The film is also dramatically exciting.
I wish it were true.
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